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Self-advocacy and equity

Ways in which women unknowingly hurt their financial, career advancement

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Despite the fact that women are occupying more spots in undergraduate and graduate school — and in some cases, even more than men — there is a dizzying array of statistics that tell us we aren’t earning the same amount of money, getting the same access to opportunities, or holding our share of leadership roles compared to our male counterparts.

This endless analysis sparks lots of debate and offers little solution. What very few data collectors are examining is our own agency in this equation. For decades, we have held the belief that if we worked hard — harder than anyone else — and did well in school, we would have equity, but in fact we have failed to develop the skills most critical to success beyond credentials and hard work.

The capacity to self-advocate is tied to our economic and professional success. A study sponsored by the American Bar Association, entitled “The Project for Attorney Retention,” suggests women continue to struggle with critical business development skills.

Career advancement demands the ability to ask for opportunities, a raise, credit for your work and referral business. If you are not an agent of your success and advocating for yourself, you are effectively surrendering your future to an external force and crossing your fingers that you will be rewarded, rather than making a case for your worth.

It is crucial to get credit for client origination and work product, but too often, women will give their success away and diminish their value by making themselves small. This is not something that is being done to us, but rather something we are doing to ourselves.

Men have a stronger tradition of professional mentorship, self-advocacy and taking criticism along with praise. They’ve been fine-tuning their game for a lot longer than we have in the scheme of things. It has served them well, and as a student of success it’s important to understand the vital role these skills play in the corporate and political arena.

This is not a call to “behave like men,” but rather to take note of how worth is determined in the open market, and how women can claim more leadership positions and earn their worth. We cannot control the economy or the shifts in political power any more than we can control the weather, but we are completely in control of our own agency in the world.

Waiting to be rewarded for a job well done is a losing strategy that presumes the decision makers are fair, and that the quality of your work is the only criteria for advancement. In fact, people frequently get paid more simply because they ask, and the ability to negotiate and generate revenue is a highly-valued skill in the open market.

I recently spoke for a professional lawyers’ association about how to ask for what you want and have critical conversations. Several months later, a young woman who attended the event came to a rainmaking boot camp I was teaching. She told me that she had just won her first case and in the midst of the celebration, she almost gave away the credit and diminished her success. Instead, she consciously suppressed that urge and simply said, “thank you.” She was struck at how she was so willing to surrender some of the credit in the name of being more humble or gracious, but at what cost?

I have stacks of stories about women discounting their worth, inaccurately assigning others credit for their work, and failing to have critical conversations to advance their careers. Women are known in organizations to passionately advocate for a colleague despite the fact that they themselves are not being treated equitably.

Consider this: If you cannot properly advocate for yourself, then who will? Do you not deserve to be championed and defended, as well as those you promote and protect? You might argue that you find this sort of “self-promotion” distasteful or in contradiction to your personality.

First of all, don’t let yourself off the hook by claiming that self-advocacy is beneath you. Would you not want your child to earn his or her worth? If your child was being overlooked, and it was limiting his or her access to opportunities, would you pick up the sword, then? Of course you would, no matter what your personality type. The criteria should not be lower for your self.

It is possible to advocate for yourself and ask for what is rightly yours, in a way that is elegant and ethical. More importantly, it is our responsibility to model self-worth so that the next generation is not working twice as hard for less of the pie. There is no nobility in diminishing ourselves, and when we do we, instruct those behind us to do the same. If you are baffled by the size of your paycheck or your invisibility, and do not understand why your hard work, experience, and education is not valued, begin by looking in the mirror.

When you stop swallowing disappointment and you start articulating your value in an elegant and meaningful way, you can change the course of your own history and create a new legacy.


-Houghtailing is principal of The Houghtailing Group and founder of The Millionaire Girls’ Movement, an organization dedicated to inspiring and educating women on how to become millionaires..

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